BMW plans for a hydrogen fuel cell market

Europe

MUNICH — BMW Group has begun production of an early-stage hydrogen-powered crossover — a milestone in the automaker’s diversified powertrain strategy.

A test fleet of BMW iX5 Hydrogen vehicles, based on the X5 crossover, will hit the road early next year as the automaker aims to commercialize the technology by decade’s end.

BMW is one of a few automakers that see fuel cell technology gaining traction in a world souring on emissions-spewing combustion engine vehicles.

Project manager Thomas Hofmann said fuel cell vehicles combine the emissions-free benefits of EVs with the quick refueling capability — requiring three to five minutes — of gasoline-powered vehicles.

Fast refueling is a unique selling point of the technology, Hofmann told Automotive News at a media briefing this week. “We will not need so many hydrogen refueling stations,” he said.

BMW CEO Oliver Zipse sees hydrogen power as the yin to battery power’s yang.

“In our view, hydrogen is the missing piece of the puzzle that can complement electromobility in places where battery-electric drivetrains are unable to gain traction,” Zipse said this summer.

With much of the auto industry going all-in on electric vehicles, BMW is taking a pragmatic approach — investing in combustion engines, battery-electric and fuel cell powertrains.

“If you want to be resilient, you have to be flexible,” Zipse said.

The BMW iX5 Hydrogen, being built at a pilot plant in BMW Group’s Research and Innovation Centre in Munich, delivers 374 hp and more than 300 miles(483 km) of range based on European test cycles. An onboard fuel cell system combines hydrogen with oxygen to generate electricity, which powers an electric motor.

The company’s fuel cell technology push comes as governments attempt to ban vehicles with combustion engines.

In countries “all around the world, combustion engines will be prohibited,” Hofmann said. “We cannot sell them, 2030s onwards.”

But the reality of hydrogen-powered cars cruising down the highway is far from assured.

Hofmann pointed to the “chicken-egg problem.”

“You need an infrastructure on the one side and product on the other side,” he said.

Hydrogen refueling infrastructure is minuscule, a significant impediment to the technology’s adoption. There are 48,148 electric-vehicle charging stations in the United States, according to November 2022 figures from the Energy Department’s Alternative Fuels Data Center. Meanwhile, there are just 54 public hydrogen fueling stations.

It is small wonder that the passenger-car market’s only two fuel cell models are not sales blockbusters.

In Japan, where Toyota launched the Mirai in 2014, the cumulative volume of fuel cell passenger cars numbers approximately 4,200 sold, according to an October 2022 report from consulting firm Interact Analysis. In South Korea, sales of fuel cell passenger cars such as the Hyundai Nexo tallied about 8,500 in 2021.

Hofmann is hopeful the new Inflation Reduction Act will accelerate fuel cell vehicle adoption in the U.S.

The bill allows roughly $374 billion in climate and energy spending, such as expanded tax credits for renewable energy projects.

The IRA “gives a lot of investment in sustainability and also in hydrogen technology,” Hofmann said. “We are convinced now the race is starting.”

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